The Guardian, March 30th, 2005
Tracey Taylor was blown away by a Californian online network for mums. But is there anything like it here?
Earlier this month, Maria was feeling desperate: alone at home with two young children and a husband who worked all hours, she was sleep-deprived and depressed. She submitted a posting about being at the end of her tether to an online parenting network. Within two days she received 27 email replies from mothers in her neighbourhood. They offered practical advice on good therapists and playgroups that would give her a break from the children, as well as many sympathetic reassurances of the “You are not alone” variety.
This was Berkeley Parents Network, a US service I discovered when preparing for my family’s move this summer from London to California. Since subscribing to the free network, I have received an overwhelming amount of information about this leafy suburb of San Francisco.
While worrying about how I could avoid becoming either a “soccer mom” or a Desperate Housewife, I also needed practical information such as: which neighbourhoods were the most desirable and/or affordable, how to find a house for rent and schools to shortlist. I now know which paediatrician my two boys “must” sign up with and where to find a babysitting cooperative, as well as a multimedia summer camp (whatever that is).
Angela, who recommended her paediatrician, has been a regular correspondent. She has already done extensive – bordering on obsessive – research on schools for her offspring and, although my views do not always correspond with hers, her advice has been welcome.
Berkeley Parents Network was started by Ginger Ogle in 1993 – before the worldwide web in its current form even existed. Ogle was a computer science graduate student at Berkeley with two school-age children. Originally a list of 14 student parents campaigning for improved parental leave, the database grew to encompass all parents on the campus, then, eventually, was made open to all parents in the community.
Today, this non-profit-making, parent-run email forum has a subscriber base of more than 10,000, most of whom are parents or carers who look after young children and who live in Berkeley, with its population of around 100,000.
BPN works entirely online, predominantly by email. Busy parents post questions about child-rearing, local resources and community events, look for childcare and sell household items. Newsletter digests with dozens of parents’ questions and the responses they generate are emailed to subscribers eight-10 times a week. As Ogle puts it: “Our success is a combination of an early start, my technical background and an unending supply of smart and altruistic parents.”
What is surprising is that such patently useful grassroots services have been relatively slow to take off, even in tech-savvy America. “I hear about other lists for parents but they are much smaller – at the level of a neighbourhood or a school,” says Ogle. “There are for-profit efforts too that have mostly not worked out, although I continue to hear about these.”
So, does the UK offer anything as useful and well-run as Berkeley Parents Network? No – but there are encouraging signs. Netmums.com, for instance, bills itself as a “local network by mums for mums” and hosts local sites around the country that include forums such as Meet a Mum and Buy and Sell. Some are more trafficked than others. When I looked up my area in south-east London it had only one posting listed under Childcare, two items for sale in the Nearly New listing and a mere handful of email exchanges from mothers wanting to meet up. However, the Bristol section is very active. And the Harrow and Hillingdon section, where the site has its roots, has 5,000 members and its discussion boards are buzzing.
BPN demonstrates how “nappy valley” neighbourhoods can exploit the web to help create dynamic and mutually supportive communities. Clearly these online tribes can go some way to replacing the extended families of past generations. When I move to the west coast and am looking for a soccer club for my football-mad nine-year-old, I’ll know who to call.